[James G. Stewart is an Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Law at Allard Hall, University of British Columbia. His new article, The Turn to Corporate Criminal Liability for International Crimes: Transcending the Alien Tort Statute, can be found here.]
We occupy a curious point in history. Despite an understanding that corporations enabled slavery, were at the vanguard of colonialism, either fuelled or instigated the Second World War, and now provide key inputs to modern atrocities of all stripes, there is very nearly zero accountability for corporate violations of basic human rights norms. What a pleasure, then, to have Samuel Moyn critically reflect on this sorry state of affairs we have inherited and whether corporate criminal liability for international crimes will mark an important departure from everything that came before or merely a new mechanism for distracting our gaze from the obvious structural misalignments that inhibit human dignity most acutely.
I find Moyn’s assertion that our ancestors were more ambitious that us an attractive one. In the same breadth, I often muse with students how significant it is that we live during the initial years of a permanent international criminal court, itself an unspeakably ambitious project. In 1872, Gustave Moynier, the Swiss jurist and founder of the International Committee of the Red Cross proposed an international institution of precisely this sort, which was later revisited in the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 and then the Genocide Convention of 1948. So, with respect to our ambitions for international criminal justice, we fare fairly well in a comparison with our ancestors. Moreover, for better or worse, we have definitely outstripped them in terms of execution.
Importantly, the rise of the international criminal justice we have brought about isn’t limited to international institutions; instead, it has seeped into national courts in a remarkable process of transnational acculturation. Quite suddenly, state legislatures found themselves implementing international crimes into their domestic criminal codes, national law enforcement agencies are creating specialist war crimes units with increasing frequency, and cases involving international crimes are arguably as numerous locally as they are internationally. This past summer, I even sat through the Blackwater trial in Washington D.C. (see initial commentary here), partly out of a sense that even the United States was slowly surrendering to the trend.
The question for present purposes is, will the march of international criminal justice halt at the doors of businesses or extend to and engulf the commercial sides of atrocity, too? Will WWII cases against “industrialists” (an archaic term that I think distances these historical precedents from contemporary realities) remain quaint relics of experimentalism in the immediate post war, or will they have some salience to the plain legal parallels with modern warfare, especially in Africa? Whatever the future holds in these respects, there’s no doubt that the past has much to still teach us.
On that score, Moyn’s recitation of the traditional history of corporations in Nazi Germany is disputable. In an outstanding new thesis, Grietje Baars argues that the standard narrative of “industrialists” as auxiliaries to Hitler’s expansionism gets the relationships backwards. “Industrialists,” according to Baars, either enjoyed ascendancy over Hitler or existed in a far more horizontal relationship with leaders of the Nazi Party than historians have let on. As the Nuremberg Judgment itself recounts, “In November 1932 a petition, signed by leading industrialists and financiers, had been presented to President Hindenburg, calling upon him to entrust the Chancellorship to Hitler.” (Nuremberg Judgment, p. 177). If accurate, this history helps highlight the limitations of focusing on complicity alone within the business and human rights discourse, and brings home the importance of thinking very seriously about our topic.
In his kind response to my article, Moyn rightly recognizes that I see ICL as supplementary to other regulatory strategies, including the Alien Tort Statute (ATS). He writes that “I agree with Stewart that it would be dubious, not to mention counterfactual, to suppose that a focus on atrocity (whether through criminal law or civil liability) somehow rules out bigger regulatory ambition.” Nonetheless, he sees two provisos, which I address now in turn.